Prince William County elections officials yesterday met with attorneys representing Martha W. Hendley and Supervisor Edgar S. Wilbourn III in Prince William County Circuit Court to set in motion a recount of the June 8 Republican primary, a contest that Hendley's attorney said might have been tainted by felons voting and inconsistencies in the absentee-ballot count.
Don Haddock, Hendley's attorney, said in court yesterday that he wanted a list of felons living in the Gainesville District to determine whether illegitimate ballots were cast in Hendley's 11-vote loss to Wilbourn earlier this month. Haddock also requested a hand-count of the 71 absentee ballots that were received, four of which allegedly were not counted because of problems with a new voting machine.
Both Hendley and Wilbourn each received slightly more than 41 percent of the 3,004 primary votes, with candidate Kevin Childers receiving about 17 percent. Hendley submitted a petition to the Circuit Court last week challenging the vote count, a process the county will finance because the outcome was decided by less than one-half of 1 percent.
In a hearing required by state law, Circuit Court Judge Leroy F. Millette yesterday postponed preliminary efforts for a recount until July 9, when attorneys and elections officials are expected to present an "agreement" on what a recount procedure will entail. Millette is also working with Virginia's chief justice to assemble a three-judge panel that will oversee the procedure and rule on the outcome.
Lawyers and elections officials are scheduled to meet Monday to determine a recount procedure. Haddock said that both sides "agreed to agree" on such a procedure.
A recount favors neither candidate -- Wilbourn's margin of victory could widen. But both parties said they are more interested in a fair and accurate count than anything else. John Foote, who is representing Wilbourn, said both sides want to ensure that the count was correct.
"It's a process, and the end result is going to be what both sides want: an accurate count certified by the court," Foote said outside the courtroom. "There is every reason to believe that the count is valid. We don't think there is any reason for a change in the outcome."
But Haddock raised the possibility that felons might have voted, which essentially would make their votes void. Though elections officials did not want to speculate about felons voting, Wally Covington, secretary of the county elections board, said yesterday it is "possible" that could have happened.
In a report issued in November, Virginia auditors revealed that there were more than 11,000 ineligible felons and nearly 1,500 dead people registered to vote in the state and that Prince William County had 375 ineligible felons on the rolls at that time. In order to determine whether any of the felons voted in Gainesville, counting teams would have to compare the entire list to the poll-registry books one by one.
Because the results of the June 8 primary were so close, it would take just 11 ineligible votes to void the election. Though the three-judge panel would decide what would happen, Covington said the likely result would be a special election between Hendley and Wilbourn.
As part of the forthcoming process, counting teams -- which will be selected by the court -- will go through each sheet of recorded ballots and all of the absentee ballots to ensure a secure vote. The absentee ballots will be put through a new machine used for tallying such paper ballots, but they will also be double-checked by hand.
The ballots and recording sheets from the 11 voting machines used in the Gainesville District on June 8 are locked in a safe in the Circuit Court clerk's office and will be removed only upon court order.
Hendley, who was present at the hearing yesterday, did not comment on the proceedings. Wilbourn, who Foote said was away on a personal matter, was not present. Foote said that Wilbourn had not been served with the official petition but that he was aware of the filing and did not consider it an affront.
"Because it was so close, it provides Mrs. Hendley with a fine opportunity for a recount," Foote said. "Ed doesn't fault her for this decision."